Image above: iStock/sesame

In our profession, multitasking is out of the question.

While many in the vertical flight industry claim multitasking as one of their many extraordinary skills, they, too, suffer from the same human vulnerability to distraction as the rest of us. So how do helicopter pilots routinely juggle a series of highly complex tasks that enable them to maintain a flawless instrument scan or a perfectly steady hover while lives hang in the balance?

You practice, of course. Others might offer up lifesaving technical solutions like stability augmentation or autopilot. Training and technology advancements remain critical to our industry, but neither can replace disciplined risk management and aeronautical decision-making (ADM) when it comes to saving lives.

Juggling Priorities
When our brains switch between demanding tasks, how much cognitive ability remains for us to process new information, particularly if it disrupts our flight, or “important mission”? This is when we’re most vulnerable.

The solution many in the industry have discovered is meticulous flight planning with an obsessive focus on risk management. We service our ADM “engine”—our brain—well before takeoff to automate many dynamic risk-based decisions. Then, when we’re necessarily focused on a complex flight task and we encounter a disruption, such as a weather shift or a faulty indicator, we need to consume little brain power when making a proper in-flight decision.

No-Brainer
When it comes to ADM, most of us promise to do the right thing, saying, “I always complete preflight risk assessments, and I’ll definitely make the right choice when I should call it quits. I’m not like those knuckleheads who press on.”

These theoretical discussions typically entail some unimportant flight with a no-go decision when considering a 100 ft. ceiling and ¼-mile visibility. It’s a no-brainer—don’t go, turn around, divert, or land.


Blinding Thoughts
The reality, however, is that we rarely face simple decisions without unrelated musings intruding. Instead, our thoughts might include contract renewals, stranded clients, the last drop, beating the weather, or just getting home. But we let these scattered thoughts distract us at our peril—we effectively put our blinders on.

Perhaps the weather was acceptable at takeoff; then, the visibility starts to drop ever so slightly. Or we get a minor system failure— or both. Fixation on the importance of our perceived “mission” now overshadows the hazards we fail to recognize. Before we realize the error, we could find ourselves in a precarious position with few options.

Still Saving Lives
Many of us come from a background in the military or continue to perform critical flight activities that save lives. Even on those flights, we must always carefully assess risk versus gain before continuing. But we all need to take a step back and avoid the temptation of projecting a saving-the-world mission mentality on every flight.

No commercial flight is important enough to sacrifice lives or property. We can’t escape the endless number of external and internal pressures, but we can manage them. After all, they aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be waiting patiently for you when you return from your flight, ready to dominate your thoughts. So, let’s keep our promise to ourselves and push aside those deadly distractions. When we focus on the right things, we make every flight much more predictable, survivable, and fun!

You’re still saving lives every time you fly. Your only mission is to bring each flight to a safe conclusion.

Author

  • After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.

Chris Hill

Chris Hill

After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.

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